This is the full transcription of the 20 questions and answers. If you find an error, please leave a message!
1. What was your inspiration for The Running Grave?
I foreshadowed this particular plot since 2010 when I wrote the first Strike novel. The cult that appears in this book was once a commune, a commune at which some very dark things happened as we find out in this book and it's somewhere that Strike the detective spent six months as a child and he's always thought of those six months as the worst part of his childhood. So I always knew that one day, we would go back to this place that Strike remembers, this farm. And something very dark would have taken the place of the commune where he spent six months as a child.
2. What inspired you to explore the theme of religious cults in The Running Grave?
I've always been very, very interested in mind control. I've always been very interested in groupthink and therefore in cults. So it's something I always wanted to explore somehow in a book. So as I say, in 2010, when I started really thinking about how the whole series would take shape, I did foreshadow this because I thought this is going to be the time when I get to explore those things that interest me so much. And I love world building and creating this cult. Really thinking about what kind of cult I believe would take fire now in, you know, as we're a couple of decades into the 21st century. What would it take to hook people in? Perhaps particularly young people, but as we see in the book, it's not only young people who are attracted to this cult. But successful cults really managed to hook onto something in the zeitgeist. They understand what people want to hear, what people are trying to escape and I think that the Universal Humanitarian Church does that very effectively within the book. So my jumping off point for the cult were the words that the cult leader says the very first time that Robin enters one of their meetings in their temple and the words are 'I admit the possibility. The possibility that there is a deity, the possibility that there is life beyond the earthly plane.' I think that's a good way of hooking people who may consider themselves atheists or sceptics. None of us can say for sure there is nothing beyond, but by saying I admit the possibility the cult leader cleverly opens that door one inch and people want to come back. So that, for me, was the sort of ground zero for this cult. Do you admit the possibility?
3. What can you tell us about the leader of the Universal Humanitarian Church and their role in the story?
The supreme leader of this cult is a man called Jonathan Wace who is who is extremely charismatic. He's not fire and brimstone. He very successfully conveys the message that he's humble, he's open-minded, he's tolerant. A couple of the characters talk about seeing him as the father they wish they'd had. Or, feeling that he too understands what it is to be an outsider. He's not what Robin expects the first time she visits the temple. She's expected someone who's very fired up, a sort of evangelical figure. But he seems quite self-deprecating. At the same time he's very sexy. He's a good-looking older man. He's exactly what I think many of us would almost aspire to be. He seems very certain at the same time. He appears superficially to be questioning. He's very inclusive. He seems to be very inclusive. He's preaching a seductive message. He's saying there is truth in all religions. Let's unite them. Let's come together across cultures and explore what are the common truths in religions. Now that's an interesting starting point and it's certainly something that I think about a lot myself. Because I've always been fascinated in mythologies, how across mythologies and very discrete cultures, cultures that won't have interacted for thousands of years. Similar archetypes arise, similar creation myths arise. Because that seems to me to tell us something about what it is to be human. The differences are fascinating but the commonalities are equally fascinating. And Wace is on top of that. Wace is saying, you know, we've all got a different take on this but let's bring this together. So he's clever. He's either the messiah or a complete charlatan. So what draws people in is the potential for good and Jonathan Wace is very, very good at selling his church as something that does an enormous amount of good.
4. What’s the significance of the I Ching in the novel?
It was funny how I came to the I Ching, funny because I've had an old copy of the I Ching in my house for probably about, might even be 30 years and I hadn't opened it. And I think I must have, I can't even remember buying it but it must have come from a secondhand bookshop because it's got a penciled 20p inside it so I probably picked it up at a secondhand bookshop. And I've no memory of opening it and I was looking for something for the epigraphs that would - the chapter epigraphs - that would express some of the obliqueness but the simplicity of the Universal Humanitarian Church's ethos. And I picked up the I Ching and started flicking through it and I thought this is it, this is perfect. And for those who don't know what the I Ching is, it's not really a fortune telling device like tarot or crystal walls or anything, it's over 2,000 years old, it is thought of as an oracle. So I became kind of fascinated by it and I started to understand why odd people have become very interested in the I Ching, it actually became part of the plot so one of the church leaders, Jonathan Wace's wife, is particularly interested in the I Ching but she doesn't use it as it's supposed to be used but I had to learn how to use it properly so I could work out how she would be abusing it.
5. London has been the focal point for the previous Strike novels, what role does it play in The Running Grave?
This was an interesting book to write because it's really a split location book. So while Strike is largely London based and conducting the investigation from the office as usual, Robin is in Norfolk for a huge part of the book. And it was interesting because firstly by separating them I think they become closer because they're writing letters to each other, it's their only means of communication. Robin has to smuggle these letters out and Strike is smuggling them in. And that was an interesting part of the book for me because their relationship really does deepen through physical separation which is odd but can happen. And then the other important part of the book and I visited Norfolk - I wanted to get it right - is the Norfolk landscape. Now I hope people from Norfolk will forgive me for saying that I find that very flat landscape a little bit sinister, I don't think I'm alone in that, it has its beauty, no question, that's why I put the commune that Strike lived out as a child in Norfolk in the first place. Because I do find something slightly sinister about the flatness of that landscape and the sort of marshy parts of Norfolk. That said - she said not wanting people from Norfolk to hate me - I can remember a very happy childhood holiday in Cromer which also features in the book so yes it's not all bad. But I found it very satisfying actually to put a good chunk of the book outside London, it just changed the tone and feeling of the book a lot.
6. Why are real-life locations so important in the Strike series?
Researching the locations is really important to me, this is such a different series to the Potter series where I invented literally everything. So while yes London was in the Potter books and big cities were mentioned in the Potter books, I was always inventing something that was within those places and those cities. Kings Cross obviously I'm inventing a totally fictional platform and so on. And in the Strike books I really do try and use real locations as much as I can, it's satisfying, it grounds the series, it makes it real for me and hopefully for the reader. Sometimes you invent things obviously, I've invented a lot of buildings that lie off Lion's Mouth lane in Norfolk, but yeah I do visit these places.
7. What’s the appeal of the British coast to Strike?
Well Strike's a Cornishman so he's very drawn to the sea, he's always happy being near the sea so I think they've been to Whitstable, Cromer, Skegness, obviously we've been to Saint Moors. Well, like a lot of people, you know, I do love the coast. But it adds something to Strike's character because we see him initially as such an urban person, you know, he's London based, he works out of the heart of London, it just adds something to his character because he's drawn to the sea but that has such a strong association of childhood for him. So I always see it that way, when he heads for the coast we normally find out something character wise about Strike, that's the significance for me.
8. We’ve seen Strike’s character develop throughout the series. How does his character arc continue in this book?
A kind of a reckoning has come for Strike I think in this book. He's finally, finally trying to look after himself physically a bit more. At the end of the previous book he was physically in a very bad state out of neglect of himself, so he's tried to get a handle on this, he's lost a bit of weight, he's vaping instead of smoking, he's making an effort. But of course there's another reckoning has happened which is that he's finally, and I'm sure the readers will roll their eyes that it took him so long, he's acknowledged to himself finally what he really feels for Robin. So he's just past 40, often a time I think when people start to take stock of their lives. You're no longer in the first flush of youth and so that's the place he is in his life at the moment. He's come to admit to himself that certain things have to change and I can't say any more than that because it would give away too much.
9. Historical family tensions come to light for Strike in this book. How do they affect his familial relationships?
I think Strike does reach several reckonings in this book and one of them is definitely reevaluating certain things in his past annd coming to a reckoning with his sister Lucy. And also with his new half-sister Prudence who of course has always been his half-sister but he's never really had a relationship with her. And that's an area of growth but it's painful growth as growth often is of course. He has to accept that some of the pigeonholes he's put people into no longer apply, he sees his sister Lucy a little more clearly. I can't say too much but it was very cathartic to write because I've always known this was coming so it's very satisfying to reach the place where you finally share things with the reader.
10. Strike has experienced a lot of loss in his life. How do we see that shape his character?
Strike has obviously experienced quite a lot of loss in his life. The death of his mother is obviously huge and more recently he has experienced the loss of his surrogate mother Joan, and his uncle is failing in this book. So these things too come to you as you age, the loss of these people close to you. And I think, my editor said to me after reading this book, I really feel him getting older. And I want to depict someone who is aging. We're very youth obsessed, we're very obsessed with aging in a negative sense but I see it differently. He's gaining wisdom, he's gaining perspective and as painful as loss. is if you do learn from it, and I speak very personally here, and if it does give you a heightened sense of life is to be lived, do the thing now, say the thing now, share with people that you love that you love them now. That's a positive, these things come to all of us. So I see Strike as becoming inch by inch a little more emotionally intelligent in this book. He's often compartmentalized his emotions as a coping mechanism and he has had a lot of loss but he is becoming that little bit more self-aware in this book and I think that's probably overdue.
11. For a change, Strike finds himself (mostly) romantically unattached in The Running Grave – does this change the level of commitment he shows to his investigative work?
Well, Strike, we know, has pretty much been through a different woman in every book, other than Book 5 Troubled Blood, where he didn't have any dalliances, that book was really dominated by another woman, his aunt Joan who was dying. He's not completely celibate in this book, that's for sure, he has what I would say is probably the most reckless and stupid liaison he's had in a long time but there you go. I don't think it's so much that he's wanting to concentrate on his investigative work because he's always put that first in any case and women in his life have indeed complained about that. It's more that he is becoming aware that the woman he really wants is not one of the people he keeps having flings with. hat's really what's taken the place of long-term dalliances. I think he's now at the point where he's thinking all or nothing, almost, almost, he's sort of getting there.
12. Without revealing too much, can you share some of the challenges and dangers that Robin encounters when she first infiltrates the cult?
So Robin volunteers for the job of going undercover in this cult. She is successfully recruited at the London Temple and then sent to what is, obviously the church doesn't call it this, but what is the number one indoctrination centre which is in deep in the countryside in Norfolk. We've seen her go undercover before, we've seen her adopt a fake name, wear wigs and so on, this is full-time, this is 24 hours a day, she has to be in habit, this persona that she's built up. This is a cult that has very successfully defended itself against any kind of legal challenge. There are parallels with real life cults there. This cult has successfully indoctrinated people so that even if they managed to break free, they are very frightened about talking to the press and so on. So I can't reveal too much but obviously this is a very, very, very high-pressure situation. And as often happens with these kinds of cults, you are kept underfed, under slept and you're subject to enormous emotional pressure. So Robin faces all of those things plus the constant danger that people will realise she's not who she says she is because she's posing as a wealthy young woman whose marriage has been called off so she's posing as a woman who is really looking for something to fill that emotional hole and yeah she's got to sustain that over a few months.
13. What practices within the cult does Robin have to contend with?
Robin is putting herself in physical danger in a way that she's never done before. I don't want to give too much away but for women in the cult once successfully indoctrinated, there is a duty that is dangerous. I can't say any more but yeah, she's really putting herself physically in harm's way and emotionally too. This sort of thing really takes an emotional toll and of course she's separated from any kind of support system which is cult 101. The first thing they do is try and weaken family ties and the Universal Humanitarian Church will even split up people who join the cult together. So there's a very deliberate attempt to weaken any personal ties so that your loyalty flows upwards, can't flow sideways, you can't form alliances with people on your level. Yeah so it's very, very, very testing.
14. Throughout the series Robin has faced many personal and professional challenges. How does her journey continue to unfold in this book?
When we meet Robin in this book she's now in a stable happy relationship with her CID officer, Ryan Murphy, which Strike of course hates. So she's in a very different place emotionally and yet she still wants to go undercover which potentially means a separation of weeks or months, because she, like Strike, is putting the job first. And that, in itself probably represents the single biggest, not change exactly, but over the course of these seven books we've seen Robin turn into someone who prioritizes investigation over her private life. That was something she really struggled with in the first couple of years with the agency because she had a very unsupportive partner but now she's really quite clear this is what I am, this is what I do. And you know, if you want to be with me you will accept that. I think we see her in this book absolutely come into her own, her resourcefulness and her resilience, our exemplary, I certainly couldn't do what she did. But she yeah I think she does an amazing job in this book.
15. What does Robin get from her relationship with Ryan Murphy?
As readers of the previous book will know, Robin has been in a state of some emotional confusion. She admitted to herself that she was in love with Strike and then did her damndest to fall out of love with Strike because she just does not see that as a viable situation and he's also not really made himself into the most attractive long-term prospect, has he? He's you know pretty secretive about his sex life, she finds things out secondhand. And in the spirit of I need to move on she said yes to a date with a man who is supremely eligible you know. He's a CID officer, he understands that aspect of her life, he's charming, he's kind, what's not to love? And yeah, their relationship has clearly been going from strength to strength, we see them together in the very first chapter and it's clearly working well and as I say Strike is absolutely hating that. But many would say that's his own fault and I would be one of them. So what's it giving her? I think it's giving her something she's actually never had before, she's having a relationship with a man who is not constantly telling her she's in the wrong job, who is not harking back constantly to things that happened to her previously, who is letting Robin be Robin and that is a very new experience.
16. The relationship between Strike and Robin has evolved throughout the series. How does it develop in The Running Grave, both on a professional and a personal level?
I think on a professional level, with this book, Robin, it's not so much that she comes into her own because she's already done amazing things but she does do something that no one else at that agency has ever had to do. You know it's incredibly demanding what she undertakes in this book so she's I suppose proven herself in spades in this book. She was the perfect person to go into the cult. And Strike knows she's the right person for the job but even so he's a little worried, as any of us would be worried, watching someone go undercover in a place like this. So professionally they really and truly are now equals, totally equals. There's no longer is there any sense that she's the Watson and he's the Holmes. I think they are now totally on a par. Personally they're in a very interesting place because as I say, Strike has now acknowledged what he's been fighting for six books, he now admits to himself what he feels at precisely the moment where she's thought 'Well, there's no point' - I mean, 'There is no hope for us so I'm now with Ryan.' So that's an interesting thing to write. Their friendship, I hope the reader will understand this because it's certainly how I see it, their friendship is the most powerful thing in both of their lives. You know I'm not sure either of them fully recognize until this book how much, how close they've become, because in being separated, Strike realizes how alone he feels without her. He recognizes that he would normally be feeling a bit low he'd ring Robin, not necessarily for a personal chat but he just likes speaking to Robin. And meanwhile she's in this cult and realizes that the person that she thinks about most when feeling vulnerable or exhausted is Strike. He becomes her touchstone, she imagines herself explaining to him the ludicrous and sometimes scary things that are going on inside the cult. So yeah, as I say in separating them I think I make them bizarrely far more close.
17. Can readers expect any unexpected alliances or betrayals among the characters in The Running Grave?
So the agency, generally speaking has a bit of a problem with the sixth detective. So we have five permanent detectives at the moment. And then they have a new sixth person. Having lost Nutley in the last book, they now have Little John. And Little John is not someone everyone takes to immediately, put it that way. One of the things I really enjoyed writing in this book I think watching Strike manage this agency without Robin around was fun to write, because Robin generally speaking does supply a bit of emotional intelligence and balance. Not Strike's forte. But he's ex-military, you know, he's used to sort of telling people to do stuff and that's it it's done. And the other person I really love writing is Pat the office manager -and for Pat fans, and I know there are Pat fans out there because I've spoken to them - Pat fans will, I think, really enjoy this book and I can't say any more than that but Pat reveals some unexpected aspects of her character in this book.
18. There are many interwoven relationships in this book. And how do you decide how much to fill out any individual’s back story?
You see, I'm queen of back story. I love my back story. I usually know way more backstory than anyone needs on all of my characters. And when it comes to Strike and Robin that's useful and important because I know where they're coming from always and I know what may or may not eventually be revealed and it helps you keep the character consistent if you've really fleshed out their their past so I have a file on my laptop where Strike and Robin's back stories are very fully written. And some of it's appeared in the novels so far some of it may never be in there. But I always know where they're coming from and I always know what they they would remember and they would feel. On other characters, Pat for example, I also have quite a lot of backstory I knew when I created her what her family situation was how old she was what her husband was called so I have little files on all of the constant characters. Yeah, I can't say too much, it's quite frustrating, but I normally know on pretty much every character I normally know more than anyone else needs to know.
19. The title The Running Grave is really intriguing. Can you shed some light on its significance and its connection to the story?
Well, The Running Grave is from a quotation by Dylan Thomas. "When, like a running grave, time tracks you down'. So for me, that the significance of that quotation is old deeds catching up with people. Obviously, also mortality catching up with people. So Strike's sense of his own mortality is important in this book. But interestingly the Norfolk poet George Barker also used the phrase the running grave in his poem. And that is also mentioned in the book. So I think, although it's given translators for this novel a huge headache, because the running grave doesn't quite work in other languages, I love it. I think it's very evocative the idea of the grave dishewing, you like a wave, but also all of us knowing one day we must die. Which can, actually, be a reminder to live and that too is in this book. Strike really now starting to ask questions of himself about how he wants to spend the second half of his life so it really works for me.
20. How does having a bigger team impact the dynamic between Strike and Robin when it was just the two of them to begin with and now we’re seeing more and more?
I personally I love having the expanded agency. As they become more successful they simply can't cover everything on their own, obviously. So from a practical point of view and a realism point of view subcontractors have to come in but it's fun to play with the interpersonal dynamics. Midge is a character I absolutely love. She's obviously, in this book, the only other female detective on the team she's very resourceful. I find her a lot of fun to write, she's pretty feisty, she's also very direct with Strike in a way that he's direct with others. And that's fun to play with because although Robin and Strike have certainly rowed, she probably wouldn't go where Midge goes during a row. So it brings out aspects of Strike and Robin's characters having them interact with this bunch of subcontractors and I really enjoy that.